New Delhi (CNN Business)Om Gaur is in the midst of essentially the most heart-wrenching story of his profession as a journalist.

Earlier this month, Gaur — the nationwide editor at Dainik Bhaskar, one of many world’s biggest-selling newspapers — obtained a tip that lifeless our bodies had been noticed floating within the Ganges River in Bihar, a state in japanese India.

Given how decomposed the corpses have been, officers in Bihar suspected that they had come from additional upstream — probably from Uttar Pradesh, the extremely populated state the place Gaur relies. So he despatched a crew of 30 reporters to over 27 districts to research.

    After hours of looking out, the crew discovered greater than 2,000 our bodies floating or buried alongside a 1,100-kilometer (684-mile) stretch of the Ganges, which is taken into account a holy river to most Hindus. Dainik Bhaskar, one in all India’s greatest Hindi-language newspapers, printed its story final week with the headline, “Ganga is ashamed.”

      “I have never seen anything like this in my 35-year-long career,” Gaur instructed CNN Business.

      For weeks, India has been engulfed by a brutal second wave of Covid-19 infections, with hundreds of thousands of latest instances. There have been practically 300,000 Covid-related deaths recorded by the Health Ministry because the pandemic started, regardless that the precise determine is probably going a lot greater.

      While the human toll of the illness has been immense, journalists like Gaur aren’t simply protecting the tragedy of the scenario. They’re additionally preventing for transparency and accountability from a authorities that has tried to clamp down on criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his dealing with of the pandemic.

      As the disaster unfolded, Modi was initially slammed by the worldwide press for not doing sufficient to stop the disaster, and for downplaying the variety of fatalities. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who’s an in depth ally of Modi, has been accused of intimidating residents and journalists reporting on oxygen shortages within the state. New Delhi has even requested Twitter to take away tweets about Covid-19, together with some that have been important of Modi.

      “People have been telling me not to fight with the administration,” mentioned Gaur, who has not solely written about alleged data-fudging by the administration, however has additionally criticized the authorities for the insensitive method through which the uncovered our bodies have been lastly cremated. The state has now began patrolling the river, to stop dumping of our bodies.

      “State officials have tried to stop our coverage several times in the past few days, and have even threatened us with a court case,” he added.

      Since that first article, his paper has continued to depend our bodies within the Ganges and maintain politicians accountable for the disaster — not simply in Uttar Pradesh, however in different components of India as nicely.

      People read newspapers at a roadside tea stall in Patna, Bihar, India, on October 22, 2020.

      Shoe-leather journalism

      The spiraling disaster has overwhelmed India’s well being care system in a number of states. Beds, oxygen and medical staff are briefly provide. Some sufferers are dying in ready rooms or exterior overflowing clinics. At cremation grounds, our bodies are piling up quicker than staff can construct new pyres. While the scenario is bettering in larger cities now, rural components of the nation would possibly proceed to battle.

      Critics of the federal government — from opposition politicians and judges to common residents and even a prestigious medical journal — say that regardless of the size of the tragedy, the nation’s leaders have centered extra on picture administration slightly than tackling the catastrophe. The authorities, in the meantime, has mentioned that it desires to cease people from spreading pretend or deceptive info.

      To get the actual story, many media shops have more and more been performing some conventional shoe-leather journalism.

      Companies scramble to protect their workers from India's Covid surge

      This reporting has shocked many readers: India’s huge media have change into more and more subservient to Modi’s authorities because the Hindu nationalist was first elected Prime Minister seven years in the past. The ruling social gathering has used a variety of techniques, starting from forcing advertisers to chop off shops which might be important of its insurance policies to shutting down channels, to make sure the press is reshaped into its cheerleader.

      “Mainstream media, particularly broadcast media, really glosses over the Modi government’s failures, even while appearing neutral,” mentioned Abhinandan Sekhri, CEO of Newslaundry, an award-winning unbiased information web site that focuses on media and journalism.

      But papers like Dainik Bhaskar “have not pulled their punches and have really gone after the government” with their protection of the pandemic, at the same time as some outstanding TV channels stay as “sycophantic as ever,” he added.

      In Modi’s residence state of Gujarat, three of the highest native language newspapers — Sandesh, Divya Bhaskar and Gujarat Samachar — have constantly questioned the official statistics on the second wave via their protection.

      Divya Bhaskar reported in mid-May that just about 124,000 dying certificates had been issued within the prior 71 days in Gujarat, about 66,000 greater than throughout the identical interval final yr. The state authorities reported that solely 4,218 have been associated to Covid. Most current deaths have been attributed to underlying situations or co-morbidities, Divya Bhaskar mentioned, citing medical doctors and households of victims.

      The newspaper mentioned its journalists dug out the information by going to districts and municipal firms.

      Similarly, Sandesh, a Gujarati newspaper that dates again practically a century, has been sending its reporters to mortuaries, hospitals and crematoriums to depend the lifeless so the paper can publish each day figures. And, on May 9, the Gujarat Samachar newspaper criticized a choice by the Modi authorities to press forward with a deliberate $2.8 billion renovation of Parliament, with the headline: “Even as people are fighting life-and-death situations, public servant becomes dictator.”

      Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, during a news conference at Parliament House on the opening day of the Budget Session in New Delhi, India, on  January 29.

      Have Indian media house owners actually change into bolder?

      This kind of accountability reporting hasn’t been the norm at many main Indian media shops for the previous few years. But it’s onerous to promote the federal government’s narrative to readers as Covid-19 instances proceed to rise uncontrollably throughout the nation.

      “The pandemic concerns 99% of the population. They [media owners] are also shrewd businessmen and they know that toeing the government line at this point makes no sense,” mentioned Mahesh Langa, a Gujarat-based journalist with the English language The Hindu newspaper, which has additionally written concerning the large-scale of under-reporting of deaths within the state.

      But pushing again on Modi may be unhealthy enterprise for newspapers, as authorities adverts are a serious income, particularly because the pandemic-related financial slowdown has hit different advertisers onerous. And whereas firewalls exist to isolate enterprise pursuits from the editorial operations, these obstacles can generally come beneath strain throughout troubled occasions.

      India's Covid-19 catastrophe could make global shortages even worse

      Prominent Indian media teams even have pursuits in different industries, in keeping with a report by Reporters Without Borders, which mentioned many of the main corporations are owned by “large conglomerates that are still controlled by the founding families and that invest in a vast array of industries other than media.” For instance, the household that owns the Dainik Bhaskar Group additionally has companies in sectors starting from actual property to energy. Reliance Industries, the conglomerate headed by Asia’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, owns Network 18, which incorporates the CNN-News18 TV channel, a CNN affiliate.

      Promoters of many TV channels and newspapers want to remain within the good books of the ruling social gathering, mentioned Sekhri of Newslaundry. They “tread on eggshells” in relation to the federal government as a result of they want favorable regulatory insurance policies for his or her numerous companies, which might vary from telecom to grease, he mentioned.

      However, it’s changing into more and more tough for a lot of media platforms to be servile when there may be mounting public anger in opposition to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Sekhri added.

      “They realize their reporters will get beaten up if they go on the streets,” and never report the reality, he mentioned.

      But telling the reality can get journalists in bother. “India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly,” in keeping with Reporters Without Borders, which ranks the nation 142 out of 180 areas on its World Press Freedom Index.

      “In the last decade, 154 journalists in India were arrested, detained, interrogated or served show cause notices for their professional work,” in keeping with an evaluation by Free Speech Collective. “Sixty-seven of these were recorded in 2020 alone.”

      There’s additionally the psychological toll that doing such reporting takes. “If you are not mentally strong, you will not be able to stand the scenes that unfold in the field,” mentioned Dhaval Bharwad, deputy chief photographer for Divya Bhaskar, which can be owned by the Dainik Bhaskar Group.

      Despite the challenges, many Indian journalists seem able to proceed making an attempt to get to the reality. In the capital, Delhi, the journal Outlook India created a stir on Twitter final week, when it used the quilt of its new subject to criticize the federal government for inaction, styling it within the type of a lacking individuals poster.

        “This is not an act of bravery on our part,” Ruben Banerjee, the editor-in-chief of Outlook, instructed CNN Business. “We are just objectively reporting. There is a sense of abandonment in the country. “

        — Jyoti Jha contributed to this report.